Archive for the ‘Walt Disney World’ Category

Orlando and Disney World Trip Jan 2010 – Dining

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

Eating out tends to be a big part of our trips to Walt Disney World.  Since we make frequent visits, we don’t really feel any strong pressure to see everything.  We really enjoy taking a somewhat leisurely pace on our trip and including at least one sit-down meal during each day is something that we particularly enjoy.

In this post, I’m going to start with a brief discussion of the Disney Dining plan and then provide a day-by-day overview.  I apologize that photos are a bit sparse in this report.  I’ve never really gotten into the habit of taking a lot of photos at restaurants, other than family photos at character meals or other themed locations.  In fact, even the pretty general photos (without my family) of the Sci-Fi Dine-In below are ones that I actually took several years ago.  If I had thought ahead of time of focusing my main trip report on the meals, I probably would have made more of an effort to get at least exterior photos of more of the restaurants.  I’ll try to think of this on my next trip.

Disney Dining Plan

During the last few trips, we have taken part in the Disney Dining Plan, which allows us to pre-pay a fixed per-day amount to cover the majority of our meals.  The plan provides credits for 1 counter service meal, 1 table service meal, and 1 snack item per person for each day of the trip.  The credits are pooled over the length of the trip (expiring at 11:59pm on the departure day), which does provide some flexibility for how they are used.

The dining plan has been somewhat controversial among Disney fans for some reasons that I do think have merit, particularly related to the increased difficulties getting into table service restaurants (at many locations, it is now pretty much mandatory to make reservations 6 months in advance) and it does also seem that some of the menus have been simplified somewhat since the dining plan began.  Overall, the program does work very well for our family and it does save us a considerable amount of money as we tend to order meals that would cost quite a bit more if we were paying directly.

While we still find the plan to be worthwhile, it is unfortunate that some changes were made that reduced the value a bit since it first began.  Originally, the table service meals included appetizer, entree, dessert, non-alcoholic beverage, and gratuity.  A couple years ago, the appetizer and gratuity were removed.  Including both the appetizer and dessert did make for a bit more food than we probably really wanted at some meals.  I do think it would be much better, though, if they would change the plan to offer a choice between the appetizer or a dessert instead of only providing the dessert.  There were a number of occasions where an appetizer (particularly soup or a salad) would definitely have been my preference over getting a dessert.

I’m definitely more torn on the elimination of the gratuity.  On the one hand, I admit that I did notice that service was sometimes a bit lackluster back when the tip was included and, thus, guaranteed.  On this trip, we didn’t really have any experiences where the service was less than good.  On the other hand, though, having to pay the gratuity separately for each table-service meal definitely takes away from the “pay it and forget it” aspect of the dining plan.  Since you calculate the tip based on the original menu prices, it does re-introduce a little bit of a tendency to want to look at the cost of each item ordered and a brings back a little bit of motivation for ordering the less expensive items.

I was also less than thrilled that an 18% gratuity was automatically added to our check at every location.  I’m not sure if that was because of the dining plan or because we had 6 people in our party, but it isn’t a policy that I like very much in either case.  At a few locations, the server did ask me first if I wanted to charge the gratuity to my room charge, but in most cases he/she just brought the charge slip without asking first or commenting.

My main reason for not really liking the automatic gratuity is that I prefer to be able to increase or decrease it a bit based on how the service was.  I also tend to think that 18% is a bit high for buffet meals, but the amount was not lowered at those locations.  I will note that, since the gratuity was charged automatically, I never added anything to it and I’m pretty sure I would have tipped a bit higher at a few locations had it been left up to me.

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Orlando and Disney World Trip Jan 2010 – Bay Lake Tower

Saturday, January 16th, 2010

Disney's Contemporary and Bay Lake Tower

During our visit to Walt Disney World the first week of January, we stayed at the newest hotel on property, Bay Lake Tower at Disney’s Contemporary Resort.  Bay Lake Tower is the recently-opened 15-story Disney Vacation Club tower located adjacent to the Contemporary on the site where the north garden wing used to be located.  The Contemporary, of course, was one of the two original Disney World hotels (along with The Polynesian) and is the closest to the Magic Kingdom.

 Entrance to the Contemporary

We have been Disney’s Vacation Club members for a few years, having previously purchased points with Disney’s Saratoga Springs as our home resort.  We had always been a bit reticent about that resort due to its size and location and didn’t actually stay there for any length of time until 2008.  For most of that trip, all of the alternative DVC resorts had sold out by the time the home resort exclusivity window was over.  We really weren’t very happy with it, since it was so far away from all the parks while also being so large and spread out that we found it difficult to navigate around or to use many of the resort’s amenities.  After that experience, we sold off our interest in the early part of 2009 and then re-purchased with Bay Lake Tower as our home resort.

While we were taking a little bit of a risk by re-purchasing at a brand new DVC resort, we felt it was a very small risk.  We had actually stayed at the Contemporary once before during our last trip before we bought into DVC.  On that trip, we had stayed in a room in the old north garden wing, which was since demolished to make way for Bay Lake Tower.  We knew from that experience that we liked both the location and the overall amenities of the Contemporary and that the specific location of the new DVC tower worked really well for us as well.

Bay Lake Tower is considered to be a part of the Contemporary Resort and generally shares amenities.  Check-in and other guests services are done at the main desks in the Contemporary lobby.  Access to the tower is available via a couple ground floor entrances or by way of a skybridge that connects the 4th floor of the Contemporary with the 5th floor of Bay Lake Tower.  The bridge is not fully enclosed and, therefore, exposed to the elements.  If the weather indicates, it is definitely important to remember to grab coats or rain gear when crossing between the two buildings.

View from the Bay Lake Tower SkybridgeView from the skybridge

They do maintain a certain amount of exclusivity by always requiring the use of a room key to access any of the Bay Lake Tower entrances.  This isn’t strictly enforced as it is extremely easy to simply follow other guests into the building, but I do think this is a generally good policy to discourage non guests from wandering the building.  There are some pretty impressive views from the elevator lobbies and hall windows in the tower and I could easily see crowding and noise levels becoming a problem without the more restrictive access.

The 4th floor of the Contemporary (where the skybridge is located) is the hotel’s famous “Grand Canyon Concourse” which includes the monorail station as well as various gift shops, restaurants, and a video arcade.  The gift shops include two general Disney merchandise stores, Bayview Gifts which was mostly clothing and the Fantasia Shop, which featured a lot of Disney-branded toys, trinkets, and a pin shop.  Near the skybridge is an additional shop called Concourse Sundries and Spirits, which has some grocery items.  This store had a small selection of DVC-branded clothing and other items, including one Bay Lake Tower t-shirt, but I didn’t much like the design on it.  We were disappointed that none of the shops had anything else in the way of merchandise specific to the Contemporary or Bay Lake Tower.

Chef Mickey's and Contempo Cafe

The two restaurants on the 4th floor included Chef Mickey’s, which is a character buffet, and the quick service Contempo Cafe.  We had a nice breakfast at Chef Mickey’s on our day of arrival and had a couple quick service meals at Contempo Cafe at various times during our trip.  Both were nice locations and we particularly appreciated having the quick service location that was so conveniently located.  The Contempo Cafe is fairly new (it is in the former location of the old Concourse Steakhouse) and has a very modern feel to it, including a touchscreen ordering system.  The Contemporary has two more restaurants that we didn’t visit, which are The Wave down on the first floor (in the location of the old fast food location) and the high-end California Grill on the top floor.

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Walt Disney World trip, 12/2008 – T-Rex Cafe

Thursday, January 15th, 2009

(Continuing my very slowly-written trip report of our 12/7-12/15/08 visit to Walt Disney World and Orlando)

Even on a direct flight, the travel time from Los Angeles to Orlando is nearly 5 hours.  When you add on the three hour time change (as well as the travel time to and from the airport), most of the arrival date is used up.  On our trips, we have typically arrived at Walt Disney World by around 8pm or so Florida time.  After a long day, this is usually a bit late to head into a theme park, so we instead usually look for a fun place for dinner somewhere that isn’t overly far from the resort where we are staying.

trex1

This year, our arrival night dinner was at T-Rex Cafe, the newly-opened dinosaur-themed restaurant at Downtown Disney.  Saratoga Springs is just a short bus ride from there, so trying out this new restaurant seemed like an ideal choice for the first night of our trip.  It did turn out to be a good choice and really helped us to transition from the high-stress of travel into the fun of themed entertainment.  Giving credit where credit is due, I should mention here that I was so hungry and hurried to get to dinner that I forgot to take my camera along to the restaurant.  All the pictures in this post were taken instead by my father (most during a previous visit to the restaurant) and I thank him for sharing them with me.

trex2

At the time of our visit, the restaurant was still officially in "soft opening" meaning that it hadn’t yet had its official grand opening and would still be operating with a few limitations.  The main result of this was that they were not yet taking any reservations, which did at least increase the potential for fairly long lines.  Even though it was a Saturday night, it was fairly late (around 9pm) by the time we got checked into our hotel room and then found our way over to the restaurant for dinner.  In addition, my sister just met us there instead of coming over to the hotel, so she was able to monitor the wait time and jump into the line as soon as we called and let her know we were on the way over.  This resulted in us getting a table almost immediately after we got there.

One other effect of the restaurant being in soft opening (and so new) was that we actually had a little bit of trouble finding it.  Even though the building is rather distinctive and rather hard to miss, Downtown Disney is pretty tightly packed which means that individual buildings aren’t visible from everywhere.  With the restaurant not yet having "officially" opened, it wasn’t yet on the maps or most of the directional signs.  We even asked a couple employees for directions, but the ones we asked didn’t really seem to know the answer.  We finally found it by simply starting to walk across the complex until we spotted it in the distance.

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Walt Disney World trip, 12/2008 – Accommodations

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008

Our family took our annual trip to Walt Disney World (and Orlando in general) from 12/7-12/15.  We bought into the Disney Vacation Club (DVC) time-share a couple years ago, which makes it pretty easy for us to reserve a 1-bedroom villa for our typical length of stay.

Our home resort for DVC is Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort, a large, very spread-out resort complex located near the Downtown Disney shopping and dining area.  At the time that we bought in, this was the only home resort that was available without going through the extra difficulties (and risks) involved with purchasing an interest on the third-party market instead of directly from Disney.  The DVC contract allows members to book accommodations at their home resort 11 months in advance and at any of the other DVC resorts, if available, at 7 months.

Based on what we knew about the location and decor of Saratoga Springs, it hasn’t been our first choice of where to stay.  Our standard procedure has been to go ahead and book our target dates there at the 11 month mark, but then switch the reservation to another resort that is more to our taste once the 7 month booking window opens.  Prior to this year’s trip, we had only stayed at Saratoga Springs for one night, which was last year’s arrival night before heading to port to take the Cruise the next morning.  Our longer Walt Disney World stays as DVC members had included two stays at The Villas at the Wilderness Lodge (our favorite resort) and one stay at the Boardwalk Villas.

This year, we apparently picked some pretty high-demand dates for our trip as there was no other availability for the first 6 nights once we hit the 7-month booking window.  We were able to book Villas at Wilderness Lodge for the last 3 nights only.  We did get on the waiting list for the first 6 nights at Wilderness and also checked back a few times to see about other options.  Nothing opened up, though, and we did end up spending those 6 nights at Saratoga on this trip.

Getting right to the point, we were not especially happy with Saratoga Springs.  The room was very typical of the single-bedroom villas that we have stayed in at other resorts and was still a good fit for our needs.  The size and layout of the complex was our problem.  Saratoga Springs is huge and extremely spread out, making it very difficult to navigate.  Our room was in the Carousel building, which is one of the most remote.  This put us very far away from most of the resort’s amenities, particularly the food services and the Downtown Disney boat transportation.  These major amenities are generally clustered pretty close to one another, but are a pretty long walk from the remote buildings, such as the one where we were staying.

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Our Hurricane Wilma Experience (October, 2005)

Sunday, August 17th, 2008

A post on The Disney Blog on Friday reported on the threat that Tropical Storm Fay poses to the Orlando area.  In October of 2005, we were on vacation at Walt Disney World when Hurricane Wilma came through Florida.  I wrote up a few paragraphs in that blog post’s “comments” section and it occurred to me that it might be worthwhile to expand those comments into a full report on that experience.  These are based on nearly 3 year old recollections, but hopefully it will still be reasonably accurate.

Most people will likely remember that an unusually large number of strong hurricanes hit the southwestern USA, including Florida, during the Summer and early Fall of 2005.  This, of course, included Hurricane Katrina, which so severely devastated New Orleans and other communities in that part of the country.  Orlando was in the direct path of a few of these hurricanes and at least suffered some severe weather from most of them.  Having family in the Orlando area, we had followed these events very closely, but we generally weren’t giving too much thought to any potential impact on our late-October vacation plans, since major hurricanes that late in the season were previously exceptionally unusual.

It did start to grow into a concern during the last week or so prior to our trip as Tropical Storm Wilma formed and eventually was upgraded into a very strong hurricane.  It pretty quickly became apparent that Florida was within its most likely path.  Out travel plans had us arriving in Orlando on the evening of Saturday, October 22. Initially, Wilma looked pretty likely to pass through before our trip, but the storm slowed down somewhat and it ended up making landfall on the southern part of Florida very early in the morning of Monday, October 24.

As the timing of the hurricane became more obvious, we did give some consideration about whether to change our travel plans. While we had heard that Disney and the airlines were generally being pretty generous about waving penalties for late changes to reservations due to the hurricanes, we had also heard numerous reports (including first-hand accounts from family) on how WDW had generally fared well during the previous storms of the season.  The combination of my work schedule and the typically long lead time needed for most WDW reservations led us to realize that our only likely alternatives to going as planned would be to either cut the trip short by a couple days or cancel it altogether.  We ended up deciding to take our chances.

I admit that we did come awfully close to canceling on Friday, though, as our son (just under 2-years-old at the time) woke up that morning with a bad case of pink eye.  We did get him in to see his doctor that day, who very helpfully prescribed a liquid antibiotic that required refrigeration, not exactly the best thing when we had a full day of air travel coming up the next day.  That problem was solved by a quick trip to the store to buy a soft-side cooler and some Blue Ice, but it still was yet another concern.  Late that afternoon when my wife started complaining of a sore throat (typically the first sign of a cold for her), I couldn’t help but wonder if we were seriously tempting fate by planning to continue the trip.  Fortunately, neither of their ailments actually turned out to be overly long-lasting or severe (they were both pretty much fine by Sunday), but we didn’t know that at the time and I admit to being something of a nervous wreck by Friday evening.

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